I have been struck by how many of my female patients have been incredibly empowered to take action in the world and stand up for social justice issues and causes that are important to them. Yet, when it comes to their personal lives, they struggle to assert themselves with their partners, their families, and their friends. Somehow the strengths they can tap into "out there" fall away when it is much closer to home. Men may also have difficulties with asserting themselves, but in this post I want to focus on the phenomenon I am seeing with so many women.
Many of these women will talk about how difficult it is for them to ask for what they need and to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. Often they find themselves "over-explaining," which actually is much more disempowering than being simple, direct, and firm. Or they don't even attempt to assert their needs. Some patients have expressed a fear that the response they will get will be an angry one. Or they will disappoint someone and then feel bad. Or they will be ignored and dismissed. Or the other person could leave them and they will be all alone.
When we consider the ways boys and girls are socialized to express and manage their feelings, typically it is acceptable for boys to be angry but not sad or scared and girls aren't supposed to get angry. Of course this is ridiculous; all people feel the whole gamut of emotions and this is entirely natural and part of being human. Furthermore, when we explore with the patients their specific family and peer experiences growing up, we come to learn more about why they have developed the beliefs and behaviors they have. It is probably much riskier then to express anger toward the people they are closest to and it is safer to express anger and righteousness in situations in which things are a bit removed and there is a distance.
In treatment with me, these women can have the experience of working with a male therapist who will offer a different alternative by not responding to their anger in the ways they expect and have experienced before. Focusing on our relationship can thus be of utmost importance to their healing process and to helping them practice assertiveness skills, emotion regulation and boundary setting. Over time, they can grow into being strong women who take themselves seriously and are taken seriously by those around them.